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Are the Palestinians really going to the polls?

Palestinian poll officials count the votes at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 20, 2012. Polling stations were closed in the West Bank after 12 hours of voting in the first Palestinian election since 2006, with voters casting their ballots in a municipal poll that was boycotted by Hamas. AFP PHOTO/ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images)
Palestinian poll officials count the votes at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 20, 2012 [ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images]

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree on Friday to hold parliamentary, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections on 22 May, 31 July and 31 August respectively. This was the first such decree in fifteen years for the Palestinians in the occupied territories including the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The announcement followed a few major amendments to the election law. "Amending the election law is an important step before issuing the presidential decrees related to setting a date for holding the legislative, presidential and National Council elections," explained Hisham Kuhail, executive director of the Central Elections Commission.

However, these amendments restrict candidates for the elections to the Palestine Liberation Organisation factions and those figures who recognise the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This means that Hamas and Islamic Jihad – two major Palestinian factions — will apparently be unable to participate in the elections. Hamas and the other factions have welcomed the presidential decree, but called for a national dialogue to agree on the election arrangements.

The article which states these conditions reads: "[Any candidate for president or the PLC] must recognise the PLO as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and must recognise the Independence Document and the rulings of the Basic Law."

The devil certainly is in the detail. We can expect lengthy and possibly open-ended discussions which could dent the hopes of millions of Palestinians who want an end to the 15-year-old political division and have a united leadership able to deal with the challenges they face.

READ: Despite the presidential decrees, will the Palestinian elections actually be held?

Hamas agreed to all of the conditions imposed by Abbas and Fatah in order to end the Palestinian division and hold elections. The movement won an overwhelming majority in the last parliamentary elections held in 2006, but has had to accept that Fatah, the PA, Israel and its allies all rejected its victory; that Abbas's term of office, due to end in 2009, has been extended as an "emergency" measure; that full proportional representation will be used in the elections; and that they will be held consecutively. What's more, Hamas sought to persuade other factions to accept all of these conditions as well.

Now, though, there are other issues which should be resolved through a comprehensive national dialogue. Hamas, Fatah and other factions are scheduled to travel to Cairo on 5 February to discuss this. The talks will cover the formation of an independent election court to adjudicate between all parties; will decide on the legitimacy of the public servants who were employed by Hamas-run governments in Gaza since 2006; and will decide which security forces will secure the elections. The important matter of political detentions is also on the agenda.

Observers don't believe that Abbas will allow the elections to go ahead because several opinion polls suggest that if he stands as a candidate he will not do very well; Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh appears to be the favoured candidate for president. A recent survey conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that Abbas would get 39 per cent of the votes compared with 52 per cent for Haniyeh if they were the only candidates. The same survey found that around two-thirds of Palestinians think Abbas should resign.

There is a lot of scepticism among Palestinian and Israeli commentators about the likelihood of the elections actually being held. Abbas could cancel his decree or issue another to postpone them or add conditions that are unacceptable to Hamas and the other factions, pushing them to withdraw their agreement for them to go ahead.

One of the likeliest scenarios centres on the issue of Jerusalem. The decree stated that the elections will be conducted in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, but Israel has not announced its agreement for the Palestinians to hold elections in the occupied city which it regards as its own "unified capital". The Central Elections Commission said that there are alternatives for Jerusalemites if Israel puts obstacles in the way, but did not provide any details. This could provide the pretext for Abbas to postpone the elections until the issues in the holy city are resolved in order not to deprive the Jerusalemites of their right to choose their political representatives.

READ: EU welcomes decision to hold elections in Palestine

Another option for Abbas is to repeat what happened with the municipal elections, which were held in the occupied West Bank but not the Gaza Strip. A pro-Abbas lawyer filed a complaint to a court in the West Bank against the public servants and security services in Gaza. The case was taken to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that these employees were not legitimate so they could not be involved in organising the elections in Gaza, so it was impossible to hold them. This issue is on the agenda for the talks in Cairo.

If Abbas does cancel the elections one way or another, which I believe is likely, he will have achieved a strategic victory against Hamas. The preamble of his decree states that Abbas had the right to issue it under the power given to him by Palestinian law and the High Constitutional Court. Hamas took the bait by welcoming the decree before national agreement on the outstanding issues.

The movement's welcome was an implicit acceptance of the Constitutional Court, which is what Abbas has been seeking since he created it in 2016 and it approved the extension of his presidential legitimacy and dissolved the current PLC. Thus, Abbas is the only one with any legitimate power and he can, quite legally, it seems, send Hamas MPs home.

Are the Palestinians really going to go to the polls later this year? Somehow, I doubt it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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